Maybe it’s happened to you: You’re playing an online shooter, and you hear your opponent approaching. You’ve got your sights on the corner where they’re bound to appear — but when they do, you’re the one who ends up dead.
Latency issues, which have to do with how quickly the game sends and receives information, are just one of a menagerie of headache-inducing issues that affect competitive online play. These issues may be a nuisance to casual players, but they can pose a near-existential problem for esports, especially as leagues shift to online events during the coronavirus pandemic. For this reason, the biggest and most competitive esports tournaments usually take place in person — where fast and stable local connections ensure a level of competitiveness and fair play that remote connections can’t yet manage.
Valorant, the highly anticipated new first-person shooter from Riot Games that began a closed beta on April 8, has prioritized speed and stability in online play from the outset of its development. The pitch, which has emphasized accurate and fair play, has attracted frenzied interest thus far. Streamers and pros, responding to that promise of a superior online experience, have sampled Valorant in droves. As the beta went live, over 1.2 million viewers were watching it on Twitch — a historic figure that had swelled to over 1.7 million viewers later that day.
One of the pillars of Valorant’s pitch is speedy servers. Valorant uses 128-tick servers, a number which refers to how often the game’s server processes information per second. “A 128-tick server is twice as fast at thinking about and processing those requests,” said Naomi Clark, an assistant Arts professor at the NYU Game Center and game designer with over 20 years of experience.
At that kind of speed, movement is much more precise, and the amount of nonregistered hits, or “no-regs” — those shots with which you swore you hit your opponent — should decrease drastically. It will also reduce peeker’s advantage.
“The tick of the server is the only thing that players can complain about that’s entirely within the control of the company,” said Clark, referring to the various other ways players can experience lag in games — most of which, like a slow Internet connection or playing on an old computer, are out of the developer’s hands.
But the leap to 128 is also one other developers have appeared reluctant to make. In fact, it’s an unprecedented speed for a game’s release, and one of the major benchmarks by which competitive online multiplayer can be judged. Call of Duty: Warzone, for instance, a brand-new battle-royale game, runs at around 20 ticks per second — while Valorant rival Counter-Strike: Global Offensive uses 64-tick servers, with a precious few 128-tick servers reserved for pros competing in private lobbies.
But there are good reasons not every game launches with 128-tick servers. Firstly, it’s extremely expensive. “If you think about the number of servers that are operating in order to support a large game, where there are tens or hundreds of thousands of people playing — if you suddenly need to double the processing power, then it’s a huge increase in cost,” said Clark.
Putting an exact number on the potential cost of high-speed servers like Valorant’s is challenging due to the sheer number of variables. First, server costs fundamentally depend on traffic load: A busier month for a game will incur a higher bill. Estimates require making assumptions around technical demands and traffic — figures rarely accessible to the public.
Google Cloud, a popular service for gaming servers, declined to comment on competitive online gaming environments. However, pricing available on its website suggested that even basic solutions to run online games could get expensive quickly. Taking the “large game” pricing example, server expense for CS:GO’s players could vary from $50,000 to $100,000 a month. Valorant, with a higher tick-rate, would likely be much more expensive.
Still, even that figure is a conservative estimate. The top competitive games use dedicated servers to guarantee fast play, which are much more expensive than a generic, out of the box service. Activision’s annual investor reports, where server costs are bundled with customer service expenses, give a better sense of the expense: in 2017, the company spent around $1 billion on game operations.
Valorant’s lobbies are 5 vs. 5 — so 10 players total. For a game like Warzone, which has a huge amount of players and 150 of them in every lobby, each of them with their own connection to the server, the high cost of running 128-tick servers for everyone may not make financial sense, even for a company with deep pockets like Activision Blizzard.
There are other issues, too. The increase in processing power needed for fast performance uses more energy, increasing a game’s environmental impact. Moreover, Clark explained, the games industry hasn’t always agreed that such high-tick servers are necessary or even desirable. Valve, the developer of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, has resisted the push to move to 128-tick servers, though CS:GO pros recently petitioned Valve to increase the tick rate of the game.
Pros insist that the higher tick rate is worth it. “There’s a huge difference,” said Kurtis “Kurt” Gallo, a player signed to T1, the team that made news when it signed the first Valorant pro months before the game’s wide release. “[At a low tick rate] I could shoot someone that’s falling, and maybe five or six of my shots will hit, but if you jump to 128-tick every single one of those shots is going to hit[.]”
Still, it’s no panacea. When Overwatch switched from 20 to 60-tick servers, pro players were overjoyed — but only momentarily. “I believe Overwatch moved from 20-tick to 60-tick once they started getting serious with their esports scene,” said Carlo “Dcop” Delsol, a former pro Overwatch player. “Their competitive community surely appreciated it because it was a great improvement, but unfortunately, it wasn’t the 128-tick private server feel that CS:GO has and everyone wants. The difference between LAN and online will always be huge unless you’re playing in 128-tick servers with little to no ping.”
Delsol himself is planning a pivot to Valorant from Apex Legends. Though the game is still in closed beta and there’s been no announcement yet of an esports league, factors like Riot’s success with League of Legends and its approach to speed and stability via superior technical infrastructure have convinced him that any competitive scene around Valorant would be worth joining.
Tick rate is just one of many factors that have an effect on the quality of online play. Cheating can be rampant in competitive online play, a constant source of annoyance to high-level players and a recent scourge of Warzone, in particular. In another key feature, Riot has included an anti-cheat client and requires it to load before letting players on Valorant servers.
Server location also affects the quality of competition. If players connect from far away, their data takes longer to be processed, leading to perceptibly slower play. Valorant aims to address that by placing “a global spread of datacenters … for players in most major cities around the world,” working with Internet service providers to set up dedicated connections that keep the game feeling quick — promising connection speeds of less than 35 milliseconds to at least 70 percent of its playerbase.
Adding servers, especially at such fast speeds, would appear to be an expensive undertaking and one that may only be truly appreciated by a small percentage of Valorant’s playerbase, namely the elite pros and streamers. Yet, Riot has promised 128-tick servers for everyone.
“It’s very expensive for them to do that, and they’re taking a calculated risk that it will pay off,” said Clark. “It’s really a marketing gamble, right? … They’re looking to pay for that by actually being able to attract a lot of people away from their competitors, and if you ask me they’re probably doing this in part because they’re a little bit late to the game,” she said, referring to Riot’s late entry to the shooter market. “They know that they have to capture some of the existing players for these types of games away from their competitors … Whether [128-tick] makes any difference to play, that’s something that all the fans and players will argue about endlessly … The only thing that matters is that some people feel it does make a difference for them.”
The Valorant team insists that the difference is keenly felt by players. “The VALORANT team has put extensive effort into determining the best combination of tick rate and latency that will minimize peeker’s advantage, and those tests showed that a 128hz tick rate and 35ms (or less) latency would be best for our players,” said Dave Heironymus, technical director of Valorant at Riot Games. “Blind tests also showed that elite FPS players … can reliably detect when the game is running at a lower tick rate.”
Lucas “Mendo” Håkansson, a pro known for his attention to technical issues, was satisfied with Valorant’s online performance during a closed playtest. “I think a good server is a server you never think about,” said Håkansson. “Out of my 40+ hours of playing I never once felt like the server held me back, everything still felt flawless.”
Ethan Davison is a freelance writer covering games, books, and culture. His work has recently appeared in Medium’s FFWD, The Outline, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Follow him on Twitter @eadavison_.